- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2015

CHARLESTON, S.C. | Fear is growing among the 2016 GOP presidential candidates that the Republican National Committee’s debate criteria could rob them of their chance on stage and the opportunity for a breakthrough moment like the one that propelled Newt Gingrich to a victory in the South Carolina primary in 2012.

Left for dead on more than one occasion, the former House speaker revived his candidacy on the debate stage here in Charleston when he angrily denounced questions from CNN’s John King prodding him about problems in an earlier marriage.

“That was a seminal moment among the GOP base,” said Brent F. Nelsen, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

“They felt like Newt spoke for them when he put a prominent reporter ‘in his place,’” Mr. Nelsen said. “I can remember being at one of the breakfast places around here the next day, and there was just this buzz about what Newt had said.”

It’s the kind of buzz that can only be earned in the spotlight of a public debate — but some in the large field of candidates this year fear they won’t get that chance if they are left off the stage.



The Republican National Committee has announced that the opening debate, Aug. 8 in Ohio, will be limited to the top 10 candidates based on an average of national polls.

That does not bode well for announced and potential candidates sitting on the bubble, a group that includes former Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Gov. John Kasich of Ohio; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (the only woman in the field); Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Mr. Graham this week endorsed a letter that more than 50 New Hampshire Republicans sent to the RNC and Fox News urging them to rethink the rules to include more candidates.

“While we appreciate the efforts of Fox and the RNC, we continue to stand with the New Hampshire activists and maintain our position that criteria using national polling to determine participation [are] contradictory to our longstanding and effective early-state primary process,” Christian Ferry, Mr. Graham’s campaign manager, told The Washington Times. “We hope media outlets and the RNC will heed the advice of the early-state leaders and revise their debate criteria.”

Under pressure, Fox News said it will hold a separate forum for the candidates who don’t make the main stage — but still won’t let the nonqualifiers into the main event.

That’s cold comfort to those hoping for the biggest audience to see them make a Gingrich-like splash.

Former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly said Mr. Gingrich set the stage for the showdown with Mr. King in an earlier debate in South Carolina when he turned the tables on Fox News’ Juan Williams over a question about racial insensitivity.

“I have never been to a political debate where the crowd did the wave, and that was my first time,” Mr. Connelly recalled, alluding to the spontaneous standing ovation that Mr. Gingrich received. “The entire crowd did a wave a little like a Clemson football game.”

Sixty-five percent of South Carolina GOP primary voters said later that the debates were “important” in deciding who to cast their support behind — and 61 percent of Mr. Gingrich’s backers said they were the “single most important factor.”

He won the primary easily — though he lost the nomination to Mitt Romney.

Newt Gingrich picked a fight with the media and won,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a top adviser to Mr. Romney.

Behind the scenes, some GOP advisers have suggested that candidates might be able to score some points by skipping the first debate in a show of solidarity with the candidates who are left out.

Whatever the case, Mr. Nelsen and others say it will be difficult for another candidate to recreate Mr. Gingrich’s magic.

“Among the Republicans that have declared or almost declared, there are a lot of really good debaters, but Newt was in the category all his own,” he said, calling him a “master of the sound bite.”

Others noted that the debates were just part of a confluence of factors that led to Mr. Gingrich’s victory here, pointing to the former speaker’s ground game, outside support and the makeup of the state’s electorate that worked against the front-running Mr. Romney.

“You also have to consider Romney’s problems with evangelical voters over his Mormon religion, and the fact that [GOP megadonor] Sheldon Adelson was single-handedly funding Newt’s campaign after his back-of-the-pack finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said.

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